6. Madonna

6. Madonna

Climb up, O Mother of all sorrows,

Onto the altar of my poetry!

Blood from your withered breast

Has been spilled by the sword of wrath.

Whenever I read the middle stanza of “Madonna,” with its description of “ever-open wounds like eyes, red and staring,” I think of Schoenberg’s expressionist portrait of 1910, The Red Gaze. (If you’ve ever looked at the composer’s paintings, you probably remember this one.)  When teaching I’ve often asked students whether they understood the painting as sending out a glare – of “wrath” or loathing – or as witnessing something so horrific that it scalds the eyes. To me the mouth in the painting – offen, but wordless; frozen in breathlessness – registers a horror seen, too terrible for description, a moment of trauma so great that it defies the tongue to tell. It burns the eyes going in.

There’s something stunning about how Schoenberg forestalls the climax of his “Madonna,” a movement about the trauma of seeing. Hartleben’s translation is baroque and thick as stew (“Doch der Blick der Menschen meidet / Dich”) and shares the same tick of enjambment as in the final line of “Mondestrunken.” There it seemed to point to the spilling over of the moonwine, as if it cascaded by accident into the fifth line. Here in “Madonna,” it’s different, shockingly so if we’ve been paying attention, because, for the first time, the ritual line changes by a single word. Instead of Steig (“climb up”), it’s Dich (“you”). This change of a single word does happen in several other movements, but the change in “Madonna” seems the most significant: from beseeching Mary (“climb up”) to the pronoun for her (“you”): she has arrived, or we have arrived at her. Schoenberg takes note. Much of the movement employs a trio of instruments – flute, bass clarinet, cello – but for the final ritual line, Schoenberg adds the others. The violin slices a zigzag across three octaves, and the piano detonates its sonic bomb (the wound itself, à la Parsifal?), all while the vocalist sustains, somehow, a Sprechstimme top-line F sharp. The contrast between etiolated weeping-sighing trio and full explosive ensemble gives us Pierrot’s most conventionally dramatic moment thus far. We see her: Mary. We bear witness to her psychic wound, unflinchingly.

The violin slices, and the piano is the wound, “Madonna,” mm. 21-24.

But about that Sprechstimme F sharp. . . One of the other strange things about it – other than the fact that sustaining Sprechstimme on a pitch makes it singing more than Sprechstimme – is its very length: a half note tied to an eighth. This note, on the word Mutter, is the movement’s longest agogic accent, made more dramatic by contrast with the much faster and frankly unrelenting rate of text delivery in much of the rest of the movement. Possibly a vocalist wouldn’t forgive me for this, but it almost seems like she is mumbling for most of the movement or, at best, carrying on an internal dialogue that suddenly erupts into a public declaration in the final stanza. Inner/outer, private/public, hidden/revealed. But what on earth does it have to do with Pierrot? Is Mary’s wound one of convenience, capitalized on for self-pity’s sake? Or is the proposal that this is the wound we must understand to gain wisdom: the Ur-wound, the sign of signs at the center of history? Back to Wagner. . .

Our Lady of Sorrows, Iglesia de la Vera Cruz (Salamanca, Spain) [Creative Commons]

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